A leader’s choice of enemies defines them to voters.
Much has been made of recent polls showing the erosion of support for Democrats ahead of the midterms, tied to voters’ profound economic pessimism. As always, wading through the morass of bad takes (looking at you, Ross Douthat) can put many off the task of meaning-making about public political opinion altogether. Our line of thinking in these final weeks before the election remains much the same as it was back in January, when our Jeff Hauser and Max Moran outlined an argument for what Biden’s message should be.
“Conflict is at the root of all storytelling, and Biden should know it,” they wrote. “His message in the presidential election was a straightforward contrast between his human decency and Donald Trump’s personal cruelty. That conflict won Biden the White House, but conflict is now noticeably absent from the ‘post-partisan’ story his Administration now tells about itself.”
The Biden administration’s pervading desire to return to old norms—norms which most Americans don’t put much stock in; norms which have never sufficiently protected the public interest—continues to undercut many of his possible appeals to Americans. In trying to bring the temperature of the nation down, the White House ceded the opportunity to respond to people’s anger and anxiety, and in so doing, to give it direction.
People care more about product than process; they want the government to address keenly felt issues. People don’t care about procedural norms, but they do care about holding rich and powerful lawbreakers accountable. People don’t care about the deficit, but they do care about the cost of living. And people would be a lot less spooked by the bogeyman of “big government” if the party of bigger government actually defended the government’s usefulness, and informed the public about all the ways that federal agencies work on their behalf. As it currently stands, the libertarian notion that we have the most to fear from the government is at odds with reality that only democratic government can protect people against massive corporations.
While Republicans will gladly scapegoat everyone from elementary school teachers to migrants in their quest to deter attention from their and their benefactors’ manipulative profit-seeking, Democrats should speak loud and clear about how massive corporations are to blame for a vast swath of peoples’ economic woes.
Ocean carriers are capitalizing off of supply chain slowdowns to raise rates, passing those costs off to consumers; oil companies are making record profits from raising the price of gasoline; landlords are relying on a private company’s algorithm to hike rent prices; electric utilities are baking trade association dues into consumers’ bills, and then spending that money lobbying against consumer-focused and environmentally-friendly policies. There is simply no shortage of enemies, no limits to productive narrative-shifting outrage, for leaders actually devoted to minimizing harms to the public.
Mainstream Democratic leadership fails to challenge these powerful villains. It goes beyond Biden, and changing this pattern requires leadership from Congress too. Calling out price-gouging oil companies, as Biden has, would be far more powerful if backed up by Congress passing a windfall profits tax. Conversely, Biden failed to nominate Federal Maritime Commission leadership who would make use of the full range of the Commission’s new powers under the Ocean Shipping Reform Act of 2022 to crack down on ocean carriers’ abuses. Figuring out how to work in tandem on executive and legislative solutions is all too often a luxury concern for Democrats, who rarely have a government trifecta. We have some ideas about a stronger agenda that could have prolonged that opportunity.
Writer Anand Giridharadas recently mentioned communications consultant Anat Shenker-Osorio’s deft insight from late last May, when Biden’s polling was at its lowest, that people “are absolutely desperate for moral clarity and demonstrated conviction.” When the defenders of democracy fail to act with the clarity and certainty that being on the right side of history should offer, it’s a lot easier for the fascists to win. As Giridharadas suggested, “If the left could use a little more grace and generosity toward voters who are not yet fully on board, it could also benefit from a greater comfort with making powerful enemies. It needs to be simultaneously a better lover and a better fighter.”
Last Friday, Patrick Gaspard, Stanley Greenberg, Celinda Lake and Mike Lux wrote in the American Prospect that Democrats need to end this term “on a strong economic argument” that shows voters they’re “helping with their number one problem”: the rising costs of living. They outline three powerful arguments Democrats can make to distinguish themselves against Republicans, highlight policy wins, point out who the real enemy is (exploitative corporations and their enablers) and commit themselves to fighting against that enemy:
“1. Wealthy corporations with monopoly power are jacking up their prices, and their profits are going through the roof. Big oil, food, shipping, health care, and real estate companies have been making record profits over the last two years. I will crack down on price gouging, but to be clear: My opponent takes the opposite position.
2. I will fight hard to bring down health care costs, especially for prescription drugs. Because we passed the Inflation Reduction Act, Democrats took a good first step. […] Seniors will be getting the biggest increase in their Social Security payments in 40 years, which will help them cope with inflation, but Republicans are talking about ending Social Security.
3. I will fight for the Child Tax Credit, which will give parents up to $600 a month to help with groceries, gas, and housing. And I’m going to pay for it by taxing wealthy corporations and millionaires who are paying little or nothing in taxes right now. My opponent is against the Child Tax Credit and wants to give structural tax cuts to corporations and the wealthy.”
Many of these themes can be illustrated by provocative, visible executive branch actions, complemented by congressional oversight hearings taking villains to task. Transportation would have been a fantastic arena for Democratic leadership to show the public they’re invested in making people’s lives easier. From the dismal lack of modern passenger trains in this country to rising gas prices and airline chaos, transportation issues cause headaches for nearly every American.
Yet coming on the heels of a blatantly corrupt predecessor, Transportation Secretary Buttigieg has quietly continued in Elaine Chao’s footsteps. To be fair, Buttigieg is better in some ways; he’s less dismissive of labor and consumer advocates, and is not misallocating federal money to help with his spouse’s electoral efforts. But in terms of actually holding corporations accountable and stopping them from hurting American workers and consumers, Buttigieg has done little.
He started the job with the pandemic-induced supply chain crisis as the backdrop. While the White House made public enemies of the shipping cartels (helped along by the carriers being foreign companies), blaming them for fostering inflation, Buttigieg mostly demurred. Even more egregious is his handling of this past summer’s airline fiasco. Under Chao, airlines were permitted to charge fees to seat children next to their parents, despite Congress explicitly instructing the DOT to end that practice. Buttigieg also apparently has no issue with family separation aboard flights. He’s been more than happy to continue deferring to the airlines, as indicated by him having nothing to say about them receiving a $54 billion dollar federal bailout, but still encouraging early retirement for pilots and flight attendants, hiking prices to turn a profit, selling tickets for flights they have insufficient crew to operate, and canceling flights last-minute without reprisal. Buttigieg hasn’t fined a single U.S. airline.
Buttigieg should have acted more like SEC Chair Gary Gensler. In the coming months, he still can. At a conference on Monday, Gensler reminded industry representatives that “Congress directed us to have you all compete to benefit the public. Our clients are the 330 million people in our great nation. Americans benefit from more competition and efficiency in our markets.” Imagine if that sort of conviction, backed up by regulatory action, was replicated by leadership across federal agencies standing up to corporate interests.
Another missed opportunity for Democratic leadership to draw a contrast between themselves and Republicans on economic issues is the failure to prioritize urgently-needed funding increases for the Federal Trade Commission. Amidst widespread price-gouging across industries and egregious proposed mergers like that between supermarket giants Albertsons and Kroger, the FTC is poised to help, but is hampered by a longtime lack of resources. The FTC is an exemplary case of a federal agency whose mission is protecting American consumers. But does the average American know they have this ally in government? Does the FTC get the funding and staffing it needs to fulfill its vast mission?
The FTC had roughly 50 percent more full-time employees at the beginning of the Reagan Administration than it does today. The agency has fewer than 300 lawyers in its Bureau of Competition, which is responsible for enforcing antitrust laws across the entire economy, representing 330 million people with the single greatest anti-profiteering ambit at the time of the highest inflation in more than a generation. Your average BigLaw firm easily has a thousand lawyers; according to 2019 data, there were over 138 law firms in the US with more lawyers than the FTC’s Bureau of Competition. That’s not the only startling mismatch. The FTC only had only 57 full-time employees working on consumer protection enforcement in 2021.
For 2023, the agency requested—and the White House backed—a budget increase of $113.5 million or 30 percent, which would allow for 300 more hires. Though the House appropriations committee accepted this proposed budget increase in their draft appropriations bill, the Senate bill cut that down to a 12 percent increase. This is simply unacceptable. As the 2023 government spending package gets ironed out over the next eight weeks, Democratic leadership must demonstrate a willingness to defend and strengthen funding for the parts of government that directly serve the public.
While it’s hard to overstate the possible ramifications of the midterms for American governance and democracy, Biden has two more years left to lead. Regardless of the outcome of this election, his administration can and should do much more to challenge those who reap profits from people’s suffering. The failure to name, blame, and fight the right enemies paves the way for an emboldened right wing to rip our democracy further apart.
Want more? Check out some of the pieces that we have published or contributed research or thoughts to in the last week: